BIM and the Common Data Environment

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October 2014 by CAD USER

There is no doubt that BIM is revolutionising the delivery of construction projects, enabling the industry and its clients to move from inefficient, paper-based processes within fragmented project teams towards the seamless flow of structured data between collaborators who are incentivised to deliver whole-life value.

The BIM technology to achieve this, and its associated structures and processes, is still in development. But with the UK government's 2016 implementation deadline fast approaching, online platforms are likely to play an important role in successful BIM collaboration, because they allow data from many difference programs to be shared across different organisations, and because they can be adopted and scaled up relatively easily and cost-effectively.

The government strategy paper published in March 2011 defined four maturity levels of BIM, based not only on the level of technology used to design a building, but the level of collaboration within the process. These are:

• Level 0 Unmanaged 2D CAD, with data exchanged in paper or electronic paper form 
• Level 1 Managed CAD in 2D or 3D format, with data shared via a collaborative tool to provide a common data environment (CDE) with a standardised approach to data structure and format. No integration of commercial data 
• Level 2 Managed 3D environment where each discipline creates its own models, and all project information is shared electronically in a CDE. Commercial data managed by enterprise resource planning software and integrated into the BIM by a proprietary interface or bespoke software. May use 4D construction sequencing and/or 5D cost information 
• Level 3 Fully integrated, collaborative process with models shared between the project team on a web-enabled BIM hub, compliant with the Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) open data standard. Will use 4D construction sequencing, 5D cost, and 6D project lifecycle management information.

By 2016, all centrally procured public-sector projects must be delivered using level 2 BIM.

A CDE is defined in British Standard 1192:2007 as "a single-source of information for any given project, used to collect, manage and disseminate all relevant approved project documents for multidisciplinary teams in a managed process". It may use a project server, extranet, a file-based retrieval system or other suitable toolset.


The UK Construction Project Information Committee, an advisory group responsible for disseminating best practice throughout the industry, stresses that BIM is about "creating a shared knowledge resource". BIM offers a means for different disciplines to work together to develop a single, integrated model, rather than producing designs and associated information individually.

The benefits of a CDE include:

• Reducing or eliminating the checking, revision and reissues cycle 
• Project team members can extract selections of the latest approved data from the shared area of the CDE 
• Reduced need for coordination checks because coordination is a by-product of the detailed design production process 
• Information can subsequently be used for construction planning, estimating, cost planning, facilities management and many other downstream activities 
• Shared information reduces the time and cost in producing coordinated information.

In effect, the whole asset can be constructed virtually, with everyone working from the same documents. For now, however, this remains a distant prospect for most. It will take time for BIM knowledge and expertise to extend throughout the supply chain, and for all disciplines to deliver data in a BIM-compliant way.

 It is a common misconception that "doing BIM" involves using a particular software product. The industry already uses a diverse range of proprietary software to create, access, view, manipulate and interrogate BIM data, to exchange data between applications, to run analyses, to display information on various devices, and so on. The reality is that most professionals will need to use multiple programs in BIM-related work.

Extrapolated across a typical multidisciplinary project team, the BIM software ecosystem may involve dozens of programs, not all of which will be able to exchange data with each other.

In practical terms, working in a CDE is likely to involve using a collaboration platform, such as 4Projects or 4BIM by Viewpoint, as a data management server to share information. This would be consulted periodically to reconcile differences between multiple models, with 4D construction sequencing and 5D cost information held in separate but linked repositories.

Proficiency in software use and data portability are only two aspects of working in a CDE. Industry professionals will also need to develop working practices within their companies, and then between their companies and other members of the project team to manage their inputs to BIM. As 2016 draws nearer, some of these procedures and processes are already taking shape. Early adopters have begun to modify their internal structures and methodologies to accommodate BIM, and their experiences have informed the work of the government's BIM Task Group and associated pan-industry process recommendations.

BIM technologies and processes have not emerged in isolation. Since the 1990s, the UK construction industry has been evolving more collaborative approaches to project delivery itself. In particular, the influential government-commissioned reports by Sir Michael Latham and Sir John Egan in 1994 and 1998 respectively made a number of recommendations to drive the industry to a more efficient, less adversarial form of contracting.

Recent experiences have shown that while technology can be both an enabler and a barrier to collaborative working, it is only a minor element compared with achieving the necessary change in people and processes. Simply adopting a new technology is not enough to promote collaborative working - evidence shows that it is more important to adapt procurement processes and contracts in order to help team members work together to maximise value for the ultimate owner of the built asset.

The expansion of the internet since the late 1990s has also led to an important change in the way that companies buy and use software. Rather than buying a fixed number of copies of a program which are installed on individual computers and managed by in-house IT staff, companies can effectively rent the software they use on a monthly or annual basis and outsource the management and other overheads to the software provider. This is delivered via the internet to wherever it is needed, with the company's data stored securely in remote servers. This model is known as software-as-a-service (SaaS), and it is one aspect of cloud computing, where data and programs reside in a network of remote servers rather than a fixed location.

When online project collaboration tools such as 4Projects by Viewpoint first emerged, there was considerable inertia to overcome from the construction industry. Individuals and organisations were often reluctant to move away from traditional, largely paper-based forms of communication. They were familiar with in-house applications and hesitant about outsourcing and entrusting documents, drawings and data to software providers. They questioned the security and reliability of browser-based technologies, and the ownership and legal admissibility of electronically stored information.

Since the early 2000s, however, SaaS has become increasingly accepted. Vendors have proved robust and financially viable, and the technologies could, as promised, manage data produced by numerous different software tools. Project platforms have expanded beyond their original role of storing and delivering project documentation to support complex work processes, integrate with back-office programs, and deliver information via mobile devices, among many other advances. These systems have now been identified as suitable platforms to manage the CDE required by BIM. 

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